Many survivors of childhood sexual abuse report that the resulting trauma is not only devastating, but also difficult to face. It can take years, even decades for survivors to process and come to terms with the abuse or assault, and getting to a place of comfort and resolve when it comes to taking action over what happened can represent another (often long-term) challenge.
This brings a couple of key legal issues into focus, related to a survivor's right to file a lawsuit against an abuser, and/or against those who failed to meet their legal duties in connection with the abuse:
In most states, there is either a dedicated statute of limitations that applies to civil lawsuits over sexual abuse that occurred when the plaintiff was a minor, or a statute of limitations that covers all sexual abuse lawsuits, and which includes special provisions for incidents that occurred before the plaintiff reached adulthood.
This latter variety might contain more lenient deadlines and/or a "discovery rule" that acts as an extension of the deadline in situations where trauma resulting from childhood abuse or assault was suppressed, or memories were otherwise unrecalled, so that the nature and extent of psychological harm and other impacts ("damages" in legalese) was not realized.
The variety and sheer number of rules at play from state to state make it impossible to provide much detail here when it comes to statutes of limitations. But let's look at laws passed in a few states in recent years, related to survivors' rights and options.
In Arizona, a state law passed in 2019 is aimed at protecting the rights and options of survivors of childhood sexual abuse, by:
In New Jersey, under a new law that took effect in 2019:
In New York, lawmakers passed the Child Victims Act in 2019, which:
In North Carolina, the Sexual Assault Fast Reporting and Enforcement (SAFE Child) Act, passed in 2019, added a number of new legislative mandates related to childhood sexual abuse, including:
These are just a few examples—by no means an exhaustive list. Other states have enacted similar laws, and legislators in a number of states are currently debating the passage of laws that extend and enhance the rights of abuse survivors. For details on the current law in your state, talk with a local attorney or conduct your own research. And finally, remember that laws change, so the accuracy of the information provided here is subject to change as well.
In September 2022, President Biden signed the Eliminating Limits to Justice for Child Sex Abuse Victims Act into law. This act removes the statute of limitations for any civil lawsuit brought by a claimant who was a minor at the time they experienced a human trafficking or federal sex offense. Now, survivors of these kinds of federal offenses can file a civil action to recover damages at any time, without worrying that the statute of limitations deadline has passed.
A "statute of limitations" also applies to criminal proceedings, which are entirely separate from the civil lawsuit process, even when the same conduct or set of circumstances is the basis for both types of legal action. But, as with civil statutes of limitations over childhood sexual abuse, a number of states have also extended the criminal statute of limitations that applies to these kinds of cases.
For example, in New York, the Child Victims Act gives survivors until their 28th birthday to press criminal charges against an abuser. And in California, when potential charges include felony sexual assault of a minor, there is no criminal statute of limitations, meaning criminal charges can be brought at any time.
To understand your legal options in relation to the laws in your state, it might make sense to discuss your situation with an attorney. Any initial consultation is usually free, and everything you and the attorney discuss is (and remains) confidential, regardless of whether you end up working together. Connect with an attorney now using the tools right on this page, or learn more about finding the right attorney for you.